VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Electrifying puzzle-platformer ‘Teslagrad’ is a welcome challenge
The hand-drawn graphics of “Teslagrad” are what initially drew me to the game, but the satisfaction of overcoming its charming-yet-wonderfully-difficult puzzles is what kept me playing.
This is the unexpectedly challenging platformer you never knew you wanted.
With just over 30 minutes clocked in the game, I had died countless times while poorly traversing chasms with electrified boots and been burned alive and electrocuted more times than I’d like to admit in the first of several boss battles.
“Teslagrad” is the story of an approximately 10-year-old boy who is chased from his home during some kind of invasion by foreign rebels. The platformer, released Sept. 11 on the Nintendo Wii U eShop, begins as one would expect, running to the right to clear each screen, leaping from building to building to avoid the bad guys.
It quickly and seamlessly transforms into a puzzle-solving masterpiece inside the Tesla Tower that might leave you swearing at your GamePad more than you thought you would.
The earliest elements play on the polarity of a series of metal boxes and are expanded by a set of Blink Boots that teleport you over short distances with a zap as our hero dives between electric currents and creepy creatures of the dark.
Throughout the castle that you’ve tumbled into for refuge, there are unique cut scenes that play out in a sort of puppet theater. They tell the story of the despotic king of Elektropia’s rise to power and how his hunger for more territory results in terrible losses to an old world order that focused on the use of magnets and electricity.
It’s all done remarkably and beautifully without written or spoken dialogue.
“We intended to honor past games creating a silent narrative experience, seeking to achieve what they did quite naturally,” Rain Games Press and Community Coordinator Eduardo Garabito explained in an e-mail interview.
The lack of dialogue also played upon the development team’s own experience with early games. Garabito said not a single member of the Norway-based Rain Games team is a native English speaker. Although the early games they enjoyed including “Metroid” had some form of dialogue, it wasn’t translated for their native tongue.
“Let’s tell a story with hints, told through your actions and through the environment,” Garabito said of their inspirations. “We’ve written much about Teslagrad’s story and lore, but the challenge was to turn all those words into visuals and action. And we’re really happy with the result.”
As they should be.
The bosses, and by association many of the environments, are whimsical steampunk creations tucked away in an alternate vision of old Europe ranging from a hungry, hungry furnace to a bird whose cage-surrounded heart you must “blink” into in order to land an attack with your Magnet Glove.
Later elements discovered after about three hours of overall gameplay, including the Polarity Cloak and the “Ghostbusters”-like Teslastaff, respectively allow you to float endlessly in the red and blue currents that push and pull you throughout the game and fire magnetically charged bolts to blast your enemies.
The first of many challenges that come after receiving the Polarity Cloak tests time, patience, and the ability to blink to just the right place while escaping a series of electric currents. I was glad I wasn’t required to make my way to the very top of the Tesla Tower again before the whole thing was over.
While the life and work of Nikola Tesla may seem an unlikely inspiration for a hero’s tale to some, it fit perfectly for Rain Games.
“He was another kind of hero, wasn’t he? A scientist completely devoted to mankind through his scientific work, uninterested in the business side of things, and generous enough as to let others use the results of his hard work for the sake of science, even if the others had a personal gain interest. So definitely he was a hero, yet I agree with you it’s not the hero type we usually see in games, films or books,” Garabito said.
“On the other hand, all game mechanics are inspired in electricity and magnetism, and in that regard possibly there’s no other scientist better than Nikola Tesla to be honored in our game,” he continued.
“Curiously he also inspired us to create the King, one of the main antagonists of the game. His look was inspired by Tesla’s death mask, no less.”
Equally surprising is the choice by an independent developer to port their hard work to the Wii U before other systems topping the market. Garabito said Wii U’s reported sales slumps were never a deterrent for the lifelong fans of the console company.
“Teslagrad has been developed with a gamepad in mind from the very beginning, so adapting to Wii U GamePad only brought positive aspects (like the off-TV function implementation and a better map system),” he explained. “We think that there’s much to happen in the console life, and we are happy about releasing ‘Teslagrad’ in the system for many reasons. Just guess how it feels for us, fans of Nintendo sagas and consoles, just releasing the game in a Nintendo system.”
Part of the charm of “Teslagrad” is that ever-present level of trial-and-error gameplay that one must undertake to pass another element of a quest. Later boss battles, including an ever-watching eye, allow you the opportunity to gain early wins and learn about the boss’ tactics as you go.
“We’re aware of the difficulty, which is inspired also in the games we played and loved,” said Garabito. “We have logical and puzzle-solving challenges, closely connected to reflexed-based challenges like in any other platformer. However, players are gladly experiencing a rewarding time when playing Teslagrad, and that’s been indeed difficult to achieve.
“We hid the most nerve-breaking puzzles deep within the tower, keeping some of the secret scrolls that players need, in order to fully understand the story of the game (hidden away). They are usually apart from the main way, so it’s completely optional, but available for all those players looking for the hardest challenge. And they are rewarded properly!”
Rain Games obviously understood the cost-and-benefit of having a hero who dies after a single strike: die repeatedly after making minimal progress and reap the reward of self-satisfaction for overcoming the odds, whether they were necessary to progress further or to delve deeper into the story.
After all, you enter the Tesla Tower as a boy with no powers other than the determination of the player behind the controller. Nothing is special about the accidental Teslamancer until he begins to harness the weapons and materials housed in the castle he’s been thrust into.
This is not the story of a boy driven to overthrow a king. It is a spirited boy up against improbable odds.
Your princess is not in another castle. A magical triangle will not give you the courage to defeat evil incarnate. The fate of your country is not dependent upon you silently sniping terrorists from a rooftop or the shadows.
If that’s not enough to make you want to explore the steampunk Tesla Tower on your own, I don’t know what is.
All images courtesy of Rain Games, unless noted otherwise.
by Chris Hughes
Chris is a busy husband, dad, and aspiring professional geek. He lives, works, and plays in Scranton, Pennsylvania.